The public always seemed to have a fascination with serial killers. Perhaps it’s the fact that these are people with a complete disregard for the social morals and laws that define the lives of the rest of us. Reports and stories concerning serial killers have driven just about all forms of entertainment. In the 1880s when Jack the Ripper was terrorizing London the newspapers of the day was full of tales of his sinister exploits. Even a relatively new form of entertainment, the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ splashed horrible stories to increase sales. Now, television and movies love to use these most heinous of murderers as the basis for their stories. One of the most popular for this kind of treatment is the Zodiac Killer. This serial killer was active in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s. He was known for his cryptic messages to the newspapers and law enforcement agencies and, most important from the view of the scriptwriter, he was never captured. The fact that he tormented the law and doubts over just who he actually killed has made this case extremely popular for the basis of films. One of the latest, perhaps the best of the lot, is the 2007 film, ‘Zodiac’ now being released on DVD. This film, the latest from director David Fincher, is a taut and well constructed film from the view point of those on the frustrating trail of the killer.
The film begins on July 4, 1969, just after the second murder at the hands of the so called Zodiac killer. He had just shot two teenagers, Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau, who were making out in a secluded spot. Mageau managed to live but his girlfriend died of her wounds. Less than a month later on August 1st, a letter from the killer was received at the San Francisco Chronicle. Their top crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), has been assigned to follow the case. The letter contains a encrypted message that proves almost impossible to decode. This gets the attention of political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has always been interested in codes. Also involved in the manhunt are SFPD detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).
What makes this case so different from any other is the way the killer taunts the authorities. He would send his letters with unique bad spelling to the police and newspapers. They would contain his cryptic clues that mostly eluded them. The Zodiac would also leave partial clues at the crime scenes; just enough to drive the case but not enough to find the killer. In his notes the killer references a short story, ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, about hunters stalking humans. This was one of the favorite stories for a local man, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch). Along with the fact that wore a pendant with the Zodiac symbol prompted a neighbor to inform the police about him. While Allen became a person of interest and the only suspect seriously investigated there was nothing that could convict him. The circumstantial evidence was enough to search his home but for the most part nothing would hold up in court. The bloody knives in his car proved to be used on animals. Adding to the doubt was the fact that his handwriting did not match the letters sent by the killer and the fingerprints found at the crime scenes did not match with Allen’s. The police had to let him go but the suspicions would continue for many years afterwards. While this case remains open it had a drastic affect on the men who pursued the killer. Finding the Zodiac killer would overwhelm the lives of the police detectives and newsmen who were on the case. For the rest of their lives not having a resolution would haunt them. Avery would descend into drug abuse while Graysmith would wind up loosing his wife (Chloë Sevigny) and children to his obsession. The detectives would find themselves out of the homicide division, never really able to let go of this case considered a failure by all.
The script by James Vanderbilt closely follows the novel by Robert Graysmith. As such it provides the viewpoint and opinions of the author. This is not meant to be the definitive explanation of the crimes or the investigation but rather looks at the toll the search had on the men involved. There is a sense of frustration that naturally pervades the film. Most movies of this genre provide a nice, all loose ends wrapped up ending. This is not the case here. The mystery will most likely never be resolved and this film demonstrates that this lack of resolution has dire repercussions to those who pursued the murderer. I was anxious to see this film as soon as I heard it would be directed by David Fincher. In his previous work he was able to capture a unique visual style and pacing that made the strangest stories interesting. Even with something like the lamentable Aliens-3 the style of the film was able to carry the day. In ‘Se7en’ and ‘Fight Club’ Fincher was able to use his camera work and pacing to pull in the audience and hold them. The problem with this film is Fincher seems to have abandoned his trademark style. This is such a departure from his previous work that if I had not seen the credits I would never have pegged this as one of his films. The flair is just not present here. In his previous films Fincher was able to use the camera to create a mood, setting the stage for the actors and story. With Zodiac there are some interesting little shots now and again but overall it had a look and feel of an overly long television crime show. The pacing is uneven. It takes a lot to present a film that covers decades but here the action lags in spots. Perhaps this was to show how plodding the investigation was but for a film of two and a half hours it drags in spots. What does work is the focus of the film. Most serial killer flicks concentrate on the crimes and the killer. Looking through the eyes of the men tracking the murderer is a solid way to tell the story. While the victims of the crimes are not forgotten in this movie the psychological impact of the police and even the newsmen is what is important here. This is ultimately a story of obsession and compulsion. Both of these terms are usually rightly attributed to the killer. Instead Fincher chooses to show the same personality traits take over the lives of those on his trail.
While the cinematic style is a departure from Fincher’s usual work his tendency for great casting is present. Robert Downey Jr. shows that no matter what transpires in the life of an actor he can rise up and maintain his place as a truly talented performer. He is a joy to watch as his character sees everything in his life get pushed aside. Downey is able to show how a man can get caught in the obsession of a case like this and then get trapped in drug ad alcohol abuse. Jake Gyllenhaal still has a bit of the wide eye boy look here which does help to give his character some dimension. He has excellent control of his part and lets the audience understand how a cartoonist interested in codes could get so caught up in a murder investigation.
Paramount Pictures does its usual great job in bringing this film to DVD. The video here is excellent. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is brilliant. The color palette is well done with the contrast bring the dark and light scenes that is near reference quality. The Dolby 5.1 audio fills the room with the sound stage well set by all the speakers. The sub woofer is used with care never overwhelming the rest of the audio. While the film has its flaws and will not be the favorite Fincher flick around it does hold your attention. You just have to consider this more of a psychological thriller than the usual serial killer faire.